I Speak Because I Can

Laura Marling

Virgin, 2010


REVIEW BY: Jono Russell


The problem with success as a young songwriter, particularly the kind of success that Laura Marling enjoyed (a nomination for the prestigious Mercury prize while still a teen), is the weight of expectation that follows. When your first album is nearly flawless, as was the case with Alas I Cannot Swim, there must be a temptation to pack it all in; the pressure of matching it, let alone beating it, must have been overwhelming.

Yet Marling, aided by the wisdom of ‘age’, a relationship breakdown that was the catalyst for Noah and the Whale’s First Days of Spring (she split from frontman Charlie Fink, who was also heavily involved with her first album) and the experience of Ethan Jones as producer (Ryan Adams, Rufus Wainwright), has not just matched expectations with this follow up - she’s exceeded them.

It’s not as though the material that forms the bulk of this album is particularly new. Most of the tracks have been floating around the Internet, in some bootleg form or another, for quite some time. But with the ramped up production and Marling’s developing voice, some are barely recognizable when compared to their low-fi versions.

What is clear is that this is a far more confident Marling. Her live shows in the Alas era suggested she was very shy and insecure, as even the debut album title suggested. That same cannot be said about her follow up effort, I Speak Because I Can. Whether the newfound confidence is simply as a result of a few more years on the road, her increased popularity – not just in her native England – or simply because she’s now reached the ripe old age of 20, doesn’t really matter. Whatever it is, the result is a record that will surely challenge for Mercury honors again.

The innocence of Alas is gone. That much is clear from the opening track of the album, a radical departure from anything in Marling’s prior catalog. The blues-tinged “Devil’s Spoke,” also an early single from the album, is driven by an incessant banjo riff with more than a hint of an influence from another of her companions on the London nu-folk scene (and sometime backing band), Mumford And Sons. Marling’s vocal part rages over a cacophony of noise: “Eye to eye / Nose to nose / Ripping off each other’s clothes in a most peculiar way.” It’s a world away from the pretty folk-pop that brought her to prominence. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

I Speak Because I Can remains, at its core, a folk album, though. After the manic start to the record, Marling’s lyrics (arguably her greatest asset) are given full space to shine in “Made By Maid” and the ensuing “Rambling Man.” “But give me to a rambling man / Let it always be known that I was who I am,” declares Marling, before again the banjo returns to add a rootsy-tinge to what was, in the early recordings, a straight folk tune. It’s during this cut that you realize just how much Marling’s vocals have developed, as the multitracked harmonies showcase her range and different styles.

If Charlie Fink used Noah And The Whale’s album as one longwinded Marling kiss off, “Blackberry Stone” could be viewed as her riposte. “I’d be sad that I never held your hand as you were lowered,” she laments, “But I understand that I’d never let it go,” perhaps in reference to the final track, “Hold My Hand As I’m Lowered,” from Noah And The Whale’s debut album. Again the arrangement is restrained enough to let her vocals, and lyrics, shine, with the violin providing a pretty counterpoint melody.

Many of Marling’s songs are seemingly drawn from literature or poetry, but “Goodbye England (Covered In Snow)” is rare case where there’s little ambiguity about meaning. It’s simply a love letter to a wintery England, though Marling has revealed it was based on an experience of a childhood walk with her father, who asked her to bring him back to a particularly scenic snow-covered location before he died. As well as the song being pretty enough to make the idea of a freezing cold Britain sound appealing, it also provides the strongest lyric of the album: “I tried to be a girl who likes to be used / But I’m too good for that / There’s a mind under this hat.”

Marling has never shied away from writing about depressing topics – Alas dealt with death and mental illness, just to name a few – and that trend continues on I Speak. “Hope In The Air” is morbid, both lyrically and sonically: “Oh why fear death, be scared of living,” Marling declares, rather ominously.

The most haunting cut is undoubtedly “What He Wrote,” a song inspired by wartime love letters. The character appeals to Hera for forgiveness, having exchanged letters with a man despite being “spoken for.” The brutal honesty of the closing line – “We write / That’s all right / I miss his smell” – is affecting.

But even that can’t compare to the opening verse of the title track, which doubles as the album closer. “My husband left me last night / Left me a poor and lonely wife / I cook the meals and he got the life / Now I’m just old for the rest of my time,” the character bemoans, before going on to regret never riding her bike “down to the sea.” This is easily the finest track of the album; from the subject matter to the arrangement, it serves as a perfect closer to another work of astounding maturity.

It could be considered patronizing to constantly emphasize how young Marling is – and to a certain extent it is. But the simple fact is, there’s not many in the world – irrespective of age – making music as beautiful, as thought-provoking and, in a weird way, as uplifting as this. Her young age just makes it all the more amazing. Long may she continue.

Rating: A

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